The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave the Northeastern Pennsylvania city of Hazleton another chance to resurrect its 2006 ordinance cracking down on illegal immigrants.
The closely watched local law would penalize landlords who rented to illegal immigrants, and employers who hired them. It was immediately challenged by Hispanic and other groups, and blocked in 2007 by a federal district court.
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia affirmed the lower court's ruling. While acknowledging that local governments might be frustrated by stalled immigration measures, it ruled the law unconstitutional because it preempted the federal government's exclusive jurisdiction to regulate immigration.
Monday's order sent the case back to the Third Circuit for further review in light of Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting - the high court's May decision upholding an Arizona law that allows the state to suspend the licenses of businesses that knowingly employ "unauthorized aliens."
Although the Arizona and Hazleton laws have some similarities, the Arizona law applies only to employment. Hazleton's law would suspend the licenses of employers and landlords.
Peter Spiro, professor of immigration and constitutional law at Temple University Law School, said the Hazleton case can be a national bellwether.
"If the Hazleton ordinance is revived, that is telling the cities and other localities that if they are unhappy about the undocumented population, they can do something about it," he said.
Hazleton Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi said he hoped the Third Circuit will be forced to favor Hazleton in its next review, which is yet to be scheduled.
"It will be pretty difficult for them to go against the Supreme Court on the employment portion," he said. "Now that we have this one little victory under our belts, we are hoping more contributions will come in to our website, SmallTownDefenders.com, to carry on the fight."
Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which represents opponents of the Hazleton law, said the high court's order was "not the equivalent of a reversal." He said two out of three recent remands to the Third Circuit resulted in reaffirmations of the original rulings.
"I think Hazleton is out there popping champagne corks," said Walczak, "but I would say it's a little premature."
The former coal town in Luzerne County became a flashpoint in the national debate over illegal immigration when then-Mayor Lou Barletta, now a freshman congressman, targeted illegal immigrants, who in Hazleton are predominantly Latino. He said they were flooding the city of 25,000, fueling a crime problem, and overwhelming its police, schools, and hospitals.
Supporters of Hazleton's immigrants say they often are unfairly targeted and that the businesses they have created have helped to revitalize its downtown.